Healthy cat foods start with healthy ingredients. Choosing a healthy cat food starts with knowing how to read a cat food label. After that, you’ll need to know what are the most important things to look for are, and why these are so important to your cat’s well-being.
Cats are descended from the prehistoric Viverravines – some of the most exclusively carnivorous animals that have ever lived. Cats have very short digestive tracts and rapid digestive cycles. That means cats are designed by nature for diets that are mostly high-quality animal tissue.
Chicken meal is the protein source most often recommended by nutritionists for cats who eat dry food. The biological value of high-quality chicken meal is close to 100%. That means that the amino acids in chicken meal match a cat’s protein needs almost exactly.
Not only does chicken meal contain the right amino acids for cats, it also provides those amino acids in a highly digestible form. The digestive system of a cat takes apart the proteins in chicken meal very efficiently. Next to preparing meat from the grocery store, foods that use high-quality chicken meal as their primary ingredient provide a cat with the proteins she can use best.
Ingredients That Aren’t Food: A number of grain products look like carbohydrates but are really just fillers – indigestible ingredients that add bulk, not nutrition. These include oat hulls, soybean hulls, rice hulls and peanut hulls. A good cat food may include a small amount of a digestive fiber such as bran or cellulose. But if the fiber source is one of the top two or three main ingredients, then it isn’t fiber. It’s filler.
The Difference Between Chicken and Chicken Meal is Water. Before it’s processed into dry cat food, chicken can be up to 80% water. After processing evaporates the water, there isn’t much meat left. But the order of the ingredients on a cat food label is determined by their relative weights before processing.
So the word “chicken” still appears first on the ingredient list, even though its weight after processing may be much lower than the weight of the ingredients listed second and third. On the other hand, chicken meal contains only about 5% water before being processed into cat food. When the words “chicken meal” appear first on the list of ingredients of a bag of dry cat food, then there really is more chicken in the bag than anything else.
Feet Aren’t Meat. Chicken by-products, poultry by-product meal and meat and bone meal can legally include all kinds of indigestible parts such as heads, feet, feathers, hair, hooves and horns. Indigestible ingredients like these aren’t nutritious and can result in skin and other health problems.
The second ingredient in a healthy cat food is usually a grain. While the first ingredient should be a source of high-quality animal proteins, the second ingredient is usually a source of carbohydrates. Cats have difficulty breaking down the carbohydrates in raw grains. But they are capable of digesting the carbohydrates in cooked grains. Because cats are carnivores, however, cereal grains shouldn’t be the primary ingredient in a cat’s diet.
As obligate carnivores, cats don’t actually need carbohydrates to survive. There’s plenty of raw or canned foods that have little or no grains included. These are also foods that cats thrive on.
Because cats are carnivores, they need high-quality animal proteins, and they need high-quality animal fats. Only fats derived from animals contain arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid is an essential fatty acid that cats can’t live without. The fat in dry cat food has to be preserved against spoiling. Vitamin E (tocopherols), vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and rosemary extract are some of the most natural and healthy preservatives currently used in dry cat food. No harmful effects have been found from the use of these preservatives.
Cheap Fats: When manufacturers put vague terms like “animal fat” in the list of ingredients, they have the legal right to use the cheapest fat sources they can find. It’s possible for a food to contain a high-quality fat even though the manufacturer only lists “animal fat” on the label. But we prefer foods that are legally obligated to be made from high-quality fats. If the list of ingredients says “chicken fat,” then you know what’s in the bag or can. If it says “animal fat,” you’ll never know for sure what your cat is eating. Tallow is animal fat that’s solid at a temperature of 104 degrees. It’s low in essential fatty acids (the good ones) and high in saturated fatty acids (the bad ones). Tallow is an inexpensive fat that cats are likely better off without.
Cats are obligate carnivores that evolved in the desert. This means that cats thrive on a diet that has a high meat content, and that their systems evolved to efficiently utilize the water contained in their prey. Because of this, cats are much less likely to voluntarily drink water than dogs or humans. Cats will lose up to 8% of their net body moisture before they decide to seek out water, compared to 4% for dogs.
Cats prefer to get moisture from the food that they eat, but dry food is only about 10% moisture. Canned and raw foods contain 75 to 80% moisture, which is similar to the water content of freshly-killed meat. The inclusion of wet foods in a cat’s diet can help keep her urinary tract healthy. For more information about cats, hydration, and feline urinary tract health, see “Cats Have a Drinking Problem.”
Feeding wet foods also allows for more dietary variety. Eating only one food limits a cat to nutrition from one source. If a cat is unable to recover some small nutrient from a single food, it’s likely that she’ll be able to get it from another. Wet foods can be varied more easily than dry. Ask any Mud Bay staff member for more information about food variety and rotation.
Mud Bay stands by every food and supply we stock. If for any reason you, your dog or your cat isn't completely happy with something you've bought at Mud Bay, please bring it back. We'll trade it out for something that may work better, or simply refund your money.